5 Lies Writers Believe About Editors

This post, from Jeremiah Tolbert, originally appeared on his site on 5/7/07.

At least in the science fiction community, there’s a lot of false community wisdom floating around about the editorial process. Some of them may have been true once.  Some were probably invented to mess with the heads of noobs. Some of them are carefully nurtured lies, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Well, no longer.  I’m here to tell you the truth, no matter how ugly it may be.

LIE #1:   Editors give every story fair consideration. OR:  Editors reject stories without reading them at all.

The truth is, the slush is deep, and it’s rarely an editor’s favorite part of the job. Why do you think so many places have slush readers?

Every story doesn’t get fair consideration. Not every story deserves it. If you can’t be bothered to read the submission guidelines and follow them, it’s an easy rejection. If you have five grammar and spelling mistakes in the first two paragraphs, it’s an easy rejection. If it’s a story about vampires, and I hate vampire stories, it’s mostly an easy rejection.

Most stories get at least a page out of me. Then I skip to the last 3 paragraphs, if I’m feeling generous. Some get less. Some work is so obviously bad that it’s startlingly easy to know it’s not going to work.  But every story gets looked at. Nothing ever gets rejected without being partially read. Honest.

LIE #2:  Editors never reject a good story.

I rejected plenty of really good stories at the Fortean Bureau. I’ve even rejected a couple at Escape Pod.  The reason is pretty simple: editorial vision or scope. The Fortean Bureau was looking for a particular kind of story.  Your space opera, no matter how good, was never going to appear there. Likewise, we don’t accept horror or fantasy at Escape Pod. If the story is good, and sucks me in, I will recommend sending it over to the other editors.

Stories get rejected for being too long, too short, too similiar to another story the editor has already bought… there are as many reasons for rejection as there are stories. And not all of them involve you making mistakes. There are aspects of the process that a writer cannot control. Best to just relax about it.

LIE #3:  Editors don’t foster new writers like they did in the old days, and don’t care about new talent.

John W. Campbell was a meddlesome bastard who sent his writers specific ideas for stories. He was not what you call a “hands off” kind of editor. He wrote his fair share of stories, and some of the tales I’ve heard about him make me think that he was often thinking as a writer as much as he was an editor. He wasn’t afraid to rewrite someone else’s story.

For whatever bizzare reason, some people wish editors would take that level of interest in their work, and  they lament that editors no longer foster new writers, giving them the kind of constructive criticism that leads to their personal growth. Everything for writers was just wonderful back then but these editors today are jerks!

Not true.  Campbell may have had time to do this with a larger percentage of his submissions, but the field was smaller then. Today, there are tens of thousands of writers all trying to break in to the same publications.  We simply don’t have time to give personal feedback to each submission. These days, sometimes the best you get is an encouraging rejection. My first came from Stanley Schmidt: “I like your writing, so I hope you will send more in the future.” Not very specific, but it does the trick. It tells you that you’re on the right track.

As much as I give Gordon van Gelder a hard time for his opposition to online media, the man writes a very succinct and helpful rejection letter. Even the form letters have a system to them to help you figure out why the story was rejected.  I always simultaneously feared and looked forward to his short notes.

Editors do build a stable of writers. The reason most people don’t see it is because by the time you come along, the editor has already established a group of authors he or she can count on. But short story writers in particular are always going on to write novels, so openings do occur from time to time.

If you really want feedback on your work, join a workshop or critique circle. It’s not the editor’s job to help you become a better writer. Sometimes, we’re helpful, but we can’t do it for everyone.


Read the rest of the post, which includes Lies #4 and #5, plus one Truth, on Jeremiah Tolbert’s website.